At-will employment means an employer can fire an employee at any time and for any reason, just as long as it is not based on an illegal reason such as the employee's gender or race. Employees who do not have a written contract or employment agreement are generally considered to be at will employees.
While at will employment laws change from state to state, there are certain well-recognized exceptions to the employment at-will doctrine. As a business owner, you need to understand these exceptions and know what they mean for you. Further, you need to let your employees know what about at-will employment and their rights. The basic exceptions are:
- The covenant of good faith and fair dealing, where some states recognize that employers have a duty to act in good faith when ending at-will employment.
- The public policy exception, where an employer can't fire an employee for a reason that violates the public policy of that state.
- The implied contract exception, where employers in some states are found to have entered into an implied employment at will contract with their employees by making promises or guarantees regarding continued employment.
Update your employee handbook to include an at will employment policyUpdate your current employee handbook to include an at will employment clause that sets forth clearly and succinctly that all employment is considered at will and employees can be fired, and can quit, for any reason. An updated employee handbook with information on at will employment basics can potentially limit liability and damages from employee lawsuits.
Have employees sign an at will employment agreementHaving at will employees sign an at will employment agreement acknowledging that they understand that they are at will employees of your business and can be fired without cause is one of the best ways of avoiding a lawsuit.
Review existing policies to make sure they clearly define the employment at will relationshipTake a look at your policies already in place to ensure they do not unintentionally convey to the employees an impression of continued or long-term employment. Discipline or termination policies are especially troubling if they promise the employee that certain steps will be taken or procedures followed before termination. Make sure it is clear that management can depart from these steps if necessary.
- At will employment can be a legal minefield. If you have any questions at all regarding at will employment basics, you should contact an experienced employment law attorney for advice.